When the internationally acclaimed, Black-owned UniverSoul Circus makes its annual pilgrimage to the DMV this week (June 22 – July 23), now at a new location, FedEx Field, it will mark its 24th season of outrageous dancers, music that spans a host of genres, their phenomenal South African ringmaster, Lucky Malatsi, and an amazing array of talented entertainers and animals from Africa, England, China, the Caribbean and beyond.
Best of all, there’ll be a cadre of fun-loving, zany jokesters, each guaranteed to put a smile on the faces of even the most forlorn and disgruntled children, led by the show’s signature clown and unarguably one of the best in the business — Onionhead.
Born Robert Dunn, 75, Onionhead joined the circus at 56 after serving up laughter at birthday parties in New York City for years — sometimes joined by his daughter. The two even owned and operated a party store for a while.
Then, he says, he read a news article about the UniverSoul Circus upon which he immediately set his mark on joining their team of clowns. But, he emphasizes, it required patience to bring his dream into fruition.
“I joined the circus as an assistant cook because they already had enough clowns,” he said. “I just wanted to get in the door. You may know what you really want in life but you must often be willing to take a circuitous route — moving toward it by traveling in circles, going forward and getting closer to your goal and even finding yourself heading in reverse. You have to wait, be prepared and be willing to wait for the opportunity to present itself.”
“For me, my stock in the UniverSoul Circus has always been my passion,” said Onionhead, who even worked with the tent crew and anywhere else until finally getting the chance to make a cameo appearance in his full clown regalia where he showcased his outlandish characters and crazy audience participation skills.
The founder and CEO of the family-friendly entertainment attraction, Cedric Walker, a native of Baltimore, says he first became enamored with the circus when he was just a little boy — loving it so much that he even considered running away to join one — even if it meant working as a maintenance man. As he matured, he began to do his homework and plan for the future.
“The vision was to explore the various talents other than singing and dancing that Black performers had to offer,” said Walker who notes he researched African-American entertainment dating back to the turn of the century, eventually discovering a single Black-owned circus that had operated in 1893.
“I envisioned hip-hop musicals, a return to vaudeville and animal acts,” said Walker who began the process of recruiting, training and production for the circus in 1993 — one year before the first performance took place in the parking lot of the old Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta.
Since then, with a few bumps along the way, the circus has grown from a 10-city tour in 1997 to 500 shows in 2017 including a tour in South Africa.
“Seeing smiling faces, watching our fans dance, sing and laugh makes it all worthwhile,” he adds.
His team will share their talents to help the Smithsonian Folklife Festival celebrate their 50th anniversary in the District from June 29 – July 4 and July 6-9. As for the work, it’s not, as Onionhead points out, for the weak at heart. In fact, he hasn’t seen his own home in Osceola, Florida for almost a year, save for two days just before New Year’s Day. Nonetheless, he says, “I’m in seventh heaven.”
“When Black children see Black performers in the ring, it lets them know that that they too can do whatever they desire,” he said. “There are no limits to what they can achieve except for their own expectations. I tell them they’re never too young to begin their journey. It’s like Pinocchio who sang that if your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme,” said Onionhead whose wife Suvda and her sister both perform as contortionists for Cirque Du Soleil.
“Early in my career, maybe just two months into working as a clown back in New York, I visited a little girl at Presbyterian Hospital in Harlem, maybe 6 or 7 years old, who had been hit by a car,” he said. “The officials said she’d been nonresponsive and that visiting her would be pointless. But I put on my makeup, took out my bag of tricks and put on my best performance. Almost immediately, her whole face lit up.”
“The healing process is what a clown can do for people. This is what I was born to do,” he said.